Probing the Mysteries of Distant Galaxies
Timothy McQuaid ’23
What drew you to this field of study?
When I was in high school, I put together my own telescope that took great pictures of the night sky (though not as great as the Hubble data I use in my research now!) and realized that I really liked observational astronomy. In this field, there are so many topics one can study, so it was a little daunting to figure out what area I wanted to focus on. Fortunately, the Department of Astronomy at UMass Amherst is incredibly welcoming to and supportive of undergraduate students and makes it a total cinch to get involved in research. I was able to find my own niche in studying young star clusters with my advisor, Daniela Calzetti (distinguished professor and department head).
How do you conduct your research?
My research aims to learn about how young star clusters evolve. Stars are born in dense clumps of cosmic dust and gas, which are expelled by a number of mechanisms, acting on different timescales, over the course of a few million years. These processes are essential to regulating the rate of star formation as well as energizing the surrounding interstellar medium. We’re trying to figure out how long it takes for clusters to lose their dust and gas, which will give us insight into the contribution of those feedback mechanisms.
In my research, I’m studying a galaxy, NGC4449, about 13 million light years away. I’m using fantastic data from the Hubble Space Telescope that allows us to resolve individual clusters for analysis.
What do you see as the impact—or potential impact—of your work?
I hope that my project will help in constraining the timescale of clearing time in young star clusters, and provide insight into the role of various feedback mechanisms in regulating star formation. While that may seem somewhat narrow in scope, galaxies are like complex ecosystems, and the feedback involved in the star formation process has a critical role in the evolution of this entire ecosystem. Therefore, a relatively small difference in clearing time of only a few million years can actually have pretty far-reaching implications on our understanding of the evolution of galaxies as a whole. In astronomy, our understanding of these systems constantly evolves as we make these new discoveries, and I just feel fortunate to play some small role in that learning process.
I would recommend UMass to anyone looking to get an accessible first-rate education that also offers a multitude of opportunities in areas such as research across many disciplines.
How does your faculty mentor support your research?
When Professor Calzetti accepted me into her research group at the end of my sophomore year, I knew next to nothing about research in astronomy, let alone anything related to the complexities of star formation. Yet in only a few short years under her tutelage, I have grown into a confident and competent researcher. In addition to providing me with knowledge and support, she has also motivated me to pursue independent learning and exploration to overcome obstacles. Professor Calzetti has been my biggest advocate and is highly invested in seeing that I’m successful in my endeavors.
What do you find most exciting about conducting research?
While identifying overarching research questions is simple, actually carrying out research is a meticulous, step-by-step process. Each step presents a unique challenge that requires careful consideration and requires me to utilize my knowledge and tools or acquire new ones. This has involved a lot of independent learning, but I also rely on others in my research group for support. Also, a perk of being an observational astronomer working with Hubble images is having an abundance of really cool pictures to use as screensavers.
What are you most proud of?
I feel incredibly proud to have several co-authorships on published papers, along with my own honors thesis. I’m also proud that I’ve had several opportunities to contribute to astronomy education, such as by serving as a teaching assistant for astronomy courses and tutoring at the Astronomy Help Desk. Last summer, I also had the privilege of assisting my advisor in running a professional development module for local middle and high school teachers to reinforce the presence of astronomy in secondary education.
How has your research enhanced your overall educational experience at UMass?
Undoubtedly, research has been a vital aspect of my undergraduate education. My research experiences have allowed me to apply the knowledge I acquired in the classroom, and develop technical skills like coding, and personal skills, such as communication and teamwork. Moreover, research has provided me with the opportunity to collaborate with many incredibly intelligent and supportive people who have been instrumental in my growth as a researcher.
What are your plans for the future?
I definitely want to see how far I can get with this whole astronomy business. I hope to attend graduate school to earn a PhD in astronomy, and ultimately become a full-fledged astronomer.
Why would you recommend UMass to a friend?
I would recommend UMass to anyone looking to get an accessible first-rate education that also offers a multitude of opportunities in areas such as research across many disciplines. While attending a large university like UMass may initially seem intimidating, once you discover the wealth of opportunities that come with it, you'll be glad you made the decision to attend.